The dot-com world is a dangerous place. While most people may be more worried about hackers stealing credit card information than about being temporarily unable to access a Web site, when hackers impact a site’s business operations, it’s a serious matter.
The dot-com world is a dangerous place. While most people may be
more worried about hackers stealing credit card information than about
being temporarily unable to access a Web site, when hackers impact a
site’s business operations, it’s a serious matter.
As the recent denial of service (DOS) attacks ripped through top
Internet sites such as Amazon.com, E-Trade, eBay and Yahoo!, most took a
similar approach in dealing with the press by responding to all calls,
emphasizing that no user data has been accessed and underscoring that
security has been improved. The sites reported minimal financial impact,
but the Yankee Group predicts these attacks will cost over dollars 1
billion. Moreover, the damage to the sites’ reputations - and that of
the Internet category - has yet to be determined, particularly since
improved security measures are no guarantee that something like this
won’t happen again.
For a site like eBay, this is nothing new. ’We gained a level of
expertise and maturity last year in June and August when our site went
down,’ says Kevin Pursglove, senior director of communications. When
eBay was hit, Pursglove met with the company’s VP of marketing and the
technology department to develop talking points. Like most other sites,
eBay tried to convey the message that its site was never completely
down, but that it was experiencing slower response times and the
engineering staff was working on fixing the problem. The company also
tried to respond to every media call that came in and gave site updates
every 20 minutes to explain the problem and its origin.
Damage control vs safety
Although CNN.com was less prepared than eBay, it followed a similar
Since most employees had already left for the day when the site was
affected, CNN publicists got on the phone with the technology team to
discuss the problem, then fielded calls throughout the night.
ZDNet’s director of PR, Martha Papalia, says they’re always on the alert
for an attack. ’There weren’t people running around in a panic,’ says
Papalia. Although many senior executives were in a meeting when the site
was attacked, Papalia provided basic information to reporters until they
became available. ’From what I’ve seen and heard, (the companies) jumped
on it pretty quickly,’ says Gary Thompson, president and chief
reputation officer at Shandwick.
But even though ZDNet says it has responded to every press call it
received, Papalia says that they have tried not to give out too much
information in order to prevent copycat attacks. Excite@Home took the
According to PR manager Kelly Distefano, the company tried to keep its
initial messages very simple. ’We didn’t want to draw attention or
provide any hackers with more motivation to go after us harder,’ she
says. ’I think if the media had never found out, we would have been
fine.’ However, she admits that some reporters were angry when
Excite@Home refused to disclose what added security measures they had
One thing companies did differ on was who they had in place to speak
with reporters. At eBay, other members of the PR staff screened calls
and placed them in order of importance before handing them off to
While some reporters may have been frustrated that they were only able
to speak to PR pros and not top executives or engineers, Pursglove
defends his tactic: ’This is what we’re paid to do. The engineering team
is working on the problem at hand.’ However, Papalia says that they made
a conscious decision to set aside some time for ZDNet’s CEO to speak
with the top-tier press.
Excite@Home decided not to provide any spokespeople for on-camera
’We want to control the messages that are out there and not put anybody
out there who may not be prepared for a question,’ Distefano says. While
Thompson doesn’t believe that it’s necessary to put the company CEO on
the phone with everyone, he says the chief exec should be front and
center, taking responsibility. A letter from the CEO e-mailed to
customers or posted on the site could have helped, he adds.
Some sites also chose not to respond to all calls. Amazon.com could not
be reached for comment, and calls to E-Trade went unanswered. Buy.com
did not provide a spokesperson, citing SEC quiet period constraints,
although the company distributed a press release once it was fully
functional to explain the problem. While the majority of sites took a
reactive rather than proactive stance, Pursglove points out that there
wasn’t time to do more than respond to calls once the word got out.
Despite the fact that all of the PR pros PRWeek spoke with insisted that
this was a serious matter, some gave the impression that being the
victim of a cyberattack was almost a status symbol. ’From a PR
standpoint, it’s a definite plus to be in such good company when you’re
dealing with a crisis like this,’ says ZD’s Papalia. In fact,
SmartMoney.com reporter Paul La Monica recently expressed jealousy that
his site hadn’t been hacked.
’You know you’ve truly arrived when someone takes the time to hack you,’
Of the leading sites that weren’t hit, many still had a plan in place
for dealing with the issues. While Lycos is not doing interviews with
the press, it prepared a statement saying that it takes ’extensive
precautions to prevent security breaches’ and is confident that it has
protected sensitive customer information.
AltaVista director of communications David Emanuel says that after it
learned of the attacks on the other sites, the company discussed how to
handle a possible attack on its site. ’We’re on heightened awareness of
the issue,’ says Emanuel. The company also developed Frequently Asked
Questions (FAQ) about Internet attacks and posted them on the site.
For the sites that were attacked, most are returning to business as
usual as the calls from the media have dwindled. They have formed a
coalition to communicate with each other and get more information on how
and why these attacks happened, and were expecting another flurry of
press calls surrounding last week’s White House Internet summit, which
is meant to find ways to improve security.
But the one question left unanswered is how this will impact the
reputation of dot-coms over time. Pursglove says that he doesn’t believe
these incidents have caused lasting damage. ’This was an industry-wide
problem, and most users understand the Internet by now and understand
that this was caused by external factors,’ he says. That’s exactly the
problem, says Thompson, who thinks the reputation of the entire Internet
category has suffered: ’They can’t just say that this is a fact of
Whatever the case, many cautious Internet neophytes can’t distinguish
between an external attack and internal screw-ups. All they know is that
they can’t access their favorite sites, so they go elsewhere. While the
engineers patch the holes, the dot-com PR teams must patch up precious
relationships - in Internet time.